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Advocating for Social Justice Work in Museums

If you are looking to make change in your institution you will inevitably run into obstacles. I know firsthand how frustrating this can be and I made a planning tool to help you make your case.


We talk a lot in the museum field about a deficit model: an institutional ethos of perpetual lacking. Day-to-day this takes the form of convoluted bureaucracy, red tape, and lots of "no." For workers who want to make positive change, being stymied at every step is frustrating and over time it can be incredibly demoralizing and lead to burnout. Scholar Sara Ahmed calls this "wall work" because it can feel like you're beating your head against a brick wall. This is especially true if you are someone from a minoritized group so please prioritize your well-being- all that wall work isn't good for your health. Social justice facilitator adrienne maree brown urges us to move from the deficit model to the abundance model. What resources do I have? What assets can I leverage? We're better able to make change when we focus on what we have rather than what we don't. That's what the Advocating for Social Justice planning tool is all about.


When advocating for new initiatives, I find it helps to be very specific and solutions-oriented. A vague "inclusion" goal will be dismissed. Unless an idea is tied to a specific mission goal or strategic plan goal, don't bother talking about how it contributes to a larger ideal. You may want to improve staff diversity or pay equity, so instead of talking about the broad ideal of social justice, propose a path to posting salaries on new job posts or share your plan for a sponsored paid internship. Leadership is interested in solutions- they don't want to be brought problems.


I created the Advocating for Social Justice Work in Museums worksheet to help me plan out a strategy to make the case for what I want to accomplish. Working in coalition has a higher success rate than working on your own so find co-conspirators. Your most valuable collaborators are working outside your department, especially the departments seen as important to the bottom line like public relations and development. For example, when I was working as an in-house exhibit designer and trying to get an exhibit idea off the ground, I found collaborators in education and marketing. The educator provided gallery space and the marketer linked the exhibit idea to institutional goals for diversifying visitorship. Together we were able to make a successful case for creating a photography exhibit about a family with lesbian moms.


Case-making is an effective way to make change but it is not a silver bullet. If your attempt is not successful, please take time to appreciate yourself for bringing up important issues and trying to make change. Every time you bring up an issue the more likely leadership is to hear it in the future. Just because you aren't immediately successful does not mean your advocacy was not worthwhile. Keep trying.


Try the Advocating for Social Justice Work in Museums planning tool and let me know if you find it helpful. Download available on Resources page.